There are hundreds of European Christmas markets to choose from, but Polly Weeks discovers a train tour of the stalls in Switzerland really delivers on festive spirit

As the train slowly chugs around the mountain, I watch chocolate-box villages fading into the distance. All around us is thick snow, and even the tall evergreens are coated in the stuff.

I'm as excited as the children aboard the train in Christmas flick The Polar Express. All I need is a stern inspector like Tom Hanks' character to stamp my ticket. A buzz of Yuletide joy sweeps through me - and it's not for the first time on this trip.

I'm in Switzerland with a group of fellow Christmas lovers on an escorted trip with Back-Roads Touring Co. Rather than heading along the most direct path, this tour company prefer to take the scenic route - with the majority of our journey utilising the country's excellent train network.

Our trip starts in Zurich, where twinkling lights are spread from building to building and the spiced aroma of hot gluhwein and bratwurst fills the chilly air.

A festive parade leads us towards the train station, home to the city's largest indoor Christmas market. It's bustling with visitors snapping up decorations, wooden carvings and baked treats. Taking centre stage is an impressive 50ft Christmas tree decorated with 5,000 Swarovski crystals.
No photograph could do this sparkling mass justice, but there are plenty of tourists lining up to try.

The next day I find myself in the quieter city of Lucerne, browsing clothes and homeware, along with traditional Christmas knick-knacks at another train station market. If a romantic buzz is what you're after, this city delivers. There's the beautiful Lake Lucerne to wander along, mountains in the distance and the medieval Chapel Bridge.

While meandering through a food market, I discover Swiss Christmas delicacy Grittibanz. It looks like a brioche version of a gingerbread man, but while the dough is light, it's not sweet. I buy one. And soon, I find myself buying one every day.

Loaded up on carbs, I embark on the next leg of our journey to Grindelwald, an area famous for its ski resorts. Our train travels along the Brunig Pass, going over mountains rather than through them. As we approach resort town Interlaken, waterfalls spill from mountains into turquoise lakes, and chalets with sloping roofs sit in the valleys, creating a stunning view.

In January, when the ski-season arrives, this area will be packed. But without the crowds, it feels magical. To warm up, we indulge in a cheese fondue - dipping bread and potatoes into the gloopy but delicious mixture.

It's in Grindelwald that I have my Polar Express moment, as we take two trains up one of the highest mountains in Europe, the 4,000m Jungfrau. We luck out - it's a beautifully clear day and the views from the top are magical. To celebrate, I send a postcard back home from the mountain's own post box; it's the grown-up version of sending a letter to Santa.

I'm soon having Christmas market withdrawal symptoms but fortunately, there's plenty of opportunity to shop in our final destination, Bern. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site due to its preserved medieval streets, it's a pretty place to explore on foot.

Waisenhausplatz is home to a fantastic festive market and a lodge-style bar, where we later return for a medicinal dose of mulled wine. One stand whips up a fudge-style sweet in front of us - the smell is too enticing and I buy a bag of the warm treat, which tastes as good as it smells.

As darkness descends, a light snowfall is backlit by twinkling street lights. Weary from a day's shopping, I enter the Gothic cathedral in Munsterplatz and sit on a pew, listening to the choir rehearsing.

Ah Christmas. Frohlichi Wiehnacht and Joyeux Noel to all!


:: Polly Weeks was a guest of Back-Roads Touring Co.
(; 020 8987 0990) who offers the seven-day Switzerland: The Top of Europe tour from £1,845pp. The tour includes return flights from a choice of airports, transfers, accommodation, tour leader, first class rail travel and mini-coach transport, some meals and activities.